Synopsis: William Hope Hodgson (1877-1914) was a British writer, lecturer, photographer, former sailor, and physical culturist and body builder whose literary works won critical acclaim and praise for his extremely imaginative settings and situations, and great expressiveness. He is probably best remembered today for “The House On The Borderland”, a novel about a mysterious, isolated house occupied by an man who experiences phenomena that transcends time, space, and even life and death; the novel “The Nightland”, about a future time in which the Sun has gone out and humanity survives in a massive complex besieged by strange, horrific forces from the darkness; and the haunting, powerfully disturbing short story “The Voice in the Night”. However, during his life time he produced many other short stories, some of them centered around continuing characters. The nine Carnacki stories, of which the first six – originally published in 1910 – are reprinted in this book, belong to this category. An upper class English gentleman, Thomas Carnacki is an investigator into strange, possibly supernatural events, usually involving haunted rooms or houses. The framework of these stories is always the same: Carnacki invites four male friends to his home for dinner, after which he recounts his latest adventure and what he found. Sometimes he discovers the ‘haunting’ is the result of human trickery. Other times, he confronts things horrifying and almost incomprehensible in their alieness. And occasionally he finds odd mixtures, in which human activity seems to cause or take advantage of manifestations of things beyond human ken. Carnacki indicates he investigates these things because he wishes to learn the truth; and, in those cases in which the supernatural IS present, to protect the innocent from forces so dangerous, mere contact can cause harm. Even if in doing so he has to put his life, sanity, and soul at risk.
Review: In some ways these are cookie cutter stories. Not only do they use the same framing technique, they tend to run along similar lines during the action. Carnacki is appealed to by someone having problems. He investigates, measuring, photographing, and examining the walls, ceiling, and floors of the site of the activity to find anything odd that could provide an explanation. Usually whatever is happening takes place only at night, and often he winds up having to take the terrible risk of entering the room and waiting for darkness to find out if what he is facing is natural or supernatural; and if the latter, trusting to elaborate precautions to survive. But while the set up is formulistic, the results are anything but. Hodgson uses original and unique situations and dangers, and keeps the reader AND Carnacki off balance and unsure of what is happening. Also, Hodgson is capable of astonishing acts of imagination and description. In a scene in one story Carnacki, waiting in the dark in a house in the hopes of determining the source of odd sounds, smells, and sights, becomes aware of a strange shift in his visual perceptions. Light appears to become black, metallic objects seem to glow dimly, and the darkness around him takes on an indescribable purple hue through which he can see what looks like a young child running in absolute silence about the room. The child passes easily through solid objects and walls while still being plainly visible to him, but frequently stops and hides behind things Carnacki cannot see, peering around them back the way it had come as it were being followed… or chased. This being told in a way that almost causes goosebumps from strangeness, confusion, and the fearful implications. Also, in the stories sometimes Carnacki has to struggle not just with the unknown but also his own feelings and fears to complete his investigations, the strain of not fleeing from what might be things unnatural and dangerous beyond imagining adding a psychological edge to the adventures.
Conclusion: Despite the flaws noted above and for stories written more than 100 years ago, these hold up very well and are quite entertaining and absorbing. The reader starts out reassured – obviously since Carnacki is telling the story, he survives the adventure no matter how fearful the threat – and can focus instead on the amazing world Hodgson creates. Any fan of Hodgson’s work, or of turn of the century ‘weird’ fiction, should enjoy this book.